Late last year, medical professionals in the United Kingdom made an alarming discovery: An unusual type of H1N2 swine flu had been detected in a human for the first time. Swine flu, which usually circulates in pigs, made headlines in 2009 after the H1N1 variant killed an estimated 284,000 people. Now, UK health officials are working to determine how a different variant infected a man in the North Yorkshire region — and what it could mean for public health as we move into 2024.
What Is H1N2 Swine Flu?
As mentioned above, “swine flu” refers to a type of influenza that generally circulates in pigs. The H1N1 virus that killed thousands in 2009 was originally dubbed a “swine flu.” However, it was later determined to be a variant of the greater influenza subset of viruses that infect people each year during cold and flu season. That particular strain contained a variety of genetic material from different viruses that impacted humans, pigs, and even birds in the early 2000s. These days, annual flu vaccinations are formulated with that strain in mind, reducing the chance that H1N1 will become a widespread problem in future years.
H1N2, however, is a bit different than H1N1. This strain, officially dubbed Influenza A(H1N2)v, was detected in November of 2023 in a man complaining of typical flu symptoms: exhaustion, fever, and respiratory symptoms like a cough and resulting sore throat. Fortunately, the patient’s symptoms were mild and did not require hospitalization.
Could H1N2 Spread in Humans?
After scientists diagnosed the first case of H1N2 in a human in the UK, concerned public health officials asked: Could the virus spread further into the general population?
The chances are, thankfully, quite low. H1N2 is, genetically, very similar to strains of flu circulating among pigs in the United Kingdom. As reported in The Guardian, doctors aren’t sure how the UK patient caught this particular strain of flu, especially since the patient did not report any sort of exposure to pigs. A similar but not identical case was reported in the US this year.
Fortunately, no other cases have emerged since the initial diagnosis in November 2023. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) says it is “monitoring the situation closely” and has not yet observed any evidence pointing to pandemic potential. Medical research surrounding the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 has also led to increased protection against future swine flu outbreaks. For example, the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is able to confidently recommend antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza as immediate treatment for anyone infected.
While reports of H1N2 swine flu are certainly alarming, medical research performed over the last several decades will help ensure that any cases, however unlikely, are handled swiftly and safely with public health best practices in mind.
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